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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 9, 2010

HAWAI'I'S GARDENS
Tamarind a lovely tree we need more of


By Heidi Bornhorst

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

This tamarind tree grows at the Queen Emma Summer Palace in Nu'uanu. It is surrounded by a protective "lei" of fragrant laua'e or maile-scented fern a pretty and effective landscape technique for reducing water use.

Photo courtesy of Heidi Bornhorst

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Did you know that tamarind was a favorite tree of Queen Lili'uokalani? Some of her trees still grow in her garden at Washington Place. The Hawaiian name is wī or wī 'awa'awa 'awa'awa means "tart" or "sour," like tamarind's fruit.

Did you know that the white tern or manu o kū, our official Honolulu bird, likes to lay its precious egg (they only lay one at a time), up in a safe bare branch crotch (no nest) in these very same historic and huge tamarind trees?

A tamarind was planted for Bernice Pauahi Bishop over her piko, or umbilical cord, in their family garden in the plot where Tamarind Square now is. Happily, before it was cut down, it was propagated, and its offspring now grows at the Bishop Museum. (You can also see a piece of the original trunk there.)

Tamarind is a wonderful kind of tree. You don't see as many around Hawai'i today. The ones that are growing are old, and maybe we should all plant some new ones.

Tamarind is a pretty tree with delicate ferny leaves, yellow fragrant flower spikes and a fruit that is edible. There are sweet and sour varieties in Hawai'i.

The first time I was shown a tamarind, it was like discovering a secret source of see moi.

"You can eat this, Heidi," one of the older girls told me, peeling the seed pod and sucking on the pulp inside.

"For real? Not trying to poison me?" I asked, knowing that this girl was pretty kolohe, or rascally.

"Yes, its super-secret and 'ono," she said, and she opened another one up and munched on it joyfully.

You can find tamarind trees in O'ahu Cemetery. There's an exceptional specimen in Foster Botanical Garden, another near the Forestry and Wildlife base yard in Makiki, and another at the Hongwanji by Malu wharf near Lahaina, Maui, just to name a few.

They say that Don Francisco de Paula Marin (who also brought us mangos and grapes, plumerias and other wonderful plants for Hawai'i gardens) brought the first tamarind and planted it at the mauka end of Fort Street, up near Vineyard Boulevard and Foster Botanical Garden.

You'll find the trees in dry places, often where Hawaiians used to live. The first one I ate fruit from was near an old hale site.

How many of our readers grew up loving to eat tamarind? I would love to hear some stories about it. Do you have a favorite tree? Anyone growing keiki tamarind?

Nowadays ,you can get tamarind fruit as a tasty treat, imported from the Philippines; often, when people return with omiyage, you will find a gift of preserved tamarind, usually wrapped in yellow cellophane, and dressed with a bit of rock salt 'ono li' dat!

Tamarind is widely used is Southeast Asian cooking, like in tom yum goong, the Thai soup. You can buy it dried or in cans in Chinatown, or like I do at my favorite Kaimukī fruit stand on 9th Avenue. (Thank you, Katherine!)

The flowers are also edible and are great for bees and honey.

Tamarind is native to maybe Asia or Africa, but people easily carried the shiny brown seeds all over, so we are not sure of its exact historic home. It is in the bean family, Fabaceae, and is known as Tamarindus indica.

My friend Karen Miyano makes a most 'ono and refreshing drink from the pulp, and you can also use it in curry and chutney. The flavor goes very well with anything mango. Some of the best mango chutney has tamarind as one of the ingredients. Anywhere you need a sweet-sour 'ono kick you can add a bit of wī 'awa'awa.